Translated by Harry Abramowitz Until the First World War, Novoalexandrovsk was the administrative town of Rakishok and many other villages and settlements. When Alexander III traveled with his entourage from Moscow to Kovno, he renamed the town "Novoalexandrovsk." 1
Since the time of the Lithuanian king Gedimin, the town had been called Ezros. "Ezros" is a Lithuanian word that signifies "lakes." Because of the tsarist tendency to Russianize, they changed the name from Ezros to Novoalexandrovsk. In honor of the above-mentioned Czar Alexander III, a monument was erected to stand for generations in memory of his visit. It was a pole of cast iron about 50 feet high and on the top there was the Russian eagle. After WWI, when the Lithuanians took over Lithuania (1918), they renamed the town Ezhereni (Ezeranai). Later, in the 1930s, they renamed the town Zarasai.
The scenery of Novoalexandrovsk is remarkably beautiful. Besides the lakes, there are also forests. The beauty of the surroundings was compared to the beauty of Switzerland. It was not for nothing that president Smetona called the town and its surroundings "The Lithuanian Switzerland." But in Lithuania our native town was known as "The Lithuanian Siberia," because it was colder there than elsewhere in the country. People used to come there during the winter to skate on the frozen lakes.
Novoalexandrovsk was very near to the border of Latvia - only a few versts - and Dvinsk was only 24 versts away. Through the town of Novoalexandrovsk there was a chaussée [road], which led on one side to Utian and on the other side to Dvinsk. This road led also to the little towns of Solok, Dusiat, Ushpol and Taragin. The Polish border was also near, only 14 km away. The Tormond railway station was the Lithuanian-Polish border at the time of Poland's liberation.
Under czarist rule, the population of the town was about 5,000. The Jewish citizens numbered about 2,500. In the town there also lived Poles, Lithuanians and "staroveries" ("old believers"), who were Orthodox Christians.
The Jewish inhabitants lived mainly in the center of the town, in the main streets. There the homes of the shopkeepers adjoined their shops. The Jews settled on the main street, on the chaussée, where there were also inns, near the butchers' shops on the Aristocratic street, on the Tailor street, in the little suburb of Petranishek, downhill near the lake, in Saltupa, beyond the bridge.
The Jews tried to earn a living in many ways. That's why they had various incomes. There were a considerable number of shopkeepers, merchants, colporteurs [book sellers], wagon-drivers and tradesmen: blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, makers of felt boots and others. There were also a number of seamstresses, who made ready-to-wear clothes, which they supplied to the shopkeepers. In the town and surroundings Dovid the Tandetnik was known for the ready-to-wear ladies' coats he made. There were Jewish fishmongers and fishermen who would catch fish in the lakes. Yoyne Zisl Lonshteyn had a permit to catch fish in one lake. The biggest shop-keepers were Artshik Tsimerman, Leybe Mikhoels, Yisroel Troyb, Leybe Glikman, Meyer Leyzer Plat, who had a grocery shop as well as a bottle store, because he was a merchant of the first guild. The widow Broyman, with her two sons and daughters, managed a big enterprise. They sold galoshes and groceries, and also had a refreshment shop.
The following merchants were also known: Bertshik Shteyman, Boris Daytsh, who traded in flax and grain; Yerakhmiel Levin, Shloyme Fligl, Avrom Okun, who were timber-merchants; Avrom Tshertkover, who was reckoned a well-to-do man. He possessed 10 desatins of land (1 desatina = 2.7 acres). The island and the lake were his property, and he tried to build a datcha [country house] there.
The market was the main source of earnings. Big market-days were Tuesdays and Fridays. On Sundays, there was intensive trading with the farmers who used to come to town from the villages. Two big fairs were arranged yearly: one in winter and one in summer. The fair lasted a couple of days. Trade took place in flax, ladder [??] and pigs' bristles, and agricultural products. There were also gentile traders who had stands and sold bread and various fatty items. The "Starovery" dealt in groceries. The Jewish traders did their trade with the aristocracy, who were mainly Polish.
Before World War I, Novoalexandrovsk was considered to be a progressive trading town. Unrest used to break out at the time of military mobilization, which was carried out in Novoalexandrovsk since it was the administrative town of the surrounding lands. Newly mobilized soldiers came from little towns and villages throughout the district. With the newly mobilized, the parents, brothers and sisters also came to town. Newly mobilized drunken Christians would walk unsteadily all over the town, frightening the Jewish population. The newly mobilized Jews obviously did not willingly agree to serve with these gentiles. Jewish parents accompanied their children to the mobilization commissions with sighs and cries.
The year 1905, during the Russian revolution, was a restless period. During this period, the Jewish Bund and Social Revolutionary parties played an active part against the Czar's regime. In Novoalexandrovsk, the Russian officials and the police threatened the Jewish inhabitants with pogroms.
An important revolutionary of those days was a man named Motl, whose family name we do not remember. He once got up on the "bima" in the synagogue demanding that there should be no prayer for the Czar. He unfolded a red flag, saying, This flag will remove the bloody Czar Nicholas II. Once Motl and the cobbler Meyer Krut organized a demonstration on a Saturday afternoon. They marched all along the chaussée singing revolutionary songs in Russian and Yiddish. Half of the Jewish population took part in that demonstration.
A meeting was arranged in Shteyman's orchard. The main speaker was Mine (Motl's sister), who was a seamstress. At that meeting the speakers were both Jews and non-Jews. Mine held a red flag and asked the demonstrators, "How long will Jews live only in specially designed areas like ghettos and not be allowed even to travel to Moscow?" In the middle of the meeting mounted police came and hit those assembled with special whips. They beat the demonstrators very severely. A couple of hundred were arrested. But the revolutionary youth were not intimidated and they continued to arrange meetings.
Arke, the son of Alter the Baker, once called for a meeting on the Island. Police came and arrested Arke. They led him to prison with a cracked skull. It was at the time of the Beylis case and times were generally restless. The Jews were having a very difficult time. Rumours spread that the Christian Russian population wanted to make a pogrom on the Jewish inhabitants. The leader of the pogrom makers was the Starover Semyon Kholopov. No pogrom, however, took place at that time, because the pristav (the head of the Russian administration of the gubernia) Popov was successfully bribed to stop it.
At all times the Jews strived for their children to get a good Jewish education.
Up to World War I, this education was purely religious. Only after World War I the Jewish education in the shtetl was in the spirit of Zionism and the national-religious foundations were established. Before World War I, there were absolutely no modern schools, either in Yiddish or Hebrew. There were only cheders. There were the following cheder teachers: Bertsik Maklaner, the Talmud teacher, who after World War I became a rabbi; Yisroel-Meir Ikhiltshik, whose son, Yehude-Tsvi Ikhiltshik, is a well-known musician who has for years lived in Johannesburg; Avrom-Moshe Ikhiltshik; Yoshe Ikhitshik; and the Hebrew teacher Moyshe Leyb.
There were some exceptions, with a few Jewish children who studied in the Russian schools, in "Yevreyskoye utshilishtshe" (Jewish school), and in the three classes "gorodskoye utshilishtshe" (town/state school). Apart from the above-mentioned teachers, there were also Itse der Taytsh ("Itskhak the German"), who taught his pupils to write, and Khaye the letter-writer, who wrote letters and addresses for girls and women whose husbands or fiancés had emigrated. There was also a Talmud Torah school. The teachers of the Talmud Torah were Note Shvabski, Mikhoel Leyb and Yisroel Meir Ikhiltshik, who also taught in Talmud Torah. The Talmud Torah was managed by Khaim Levin, who afterwards emigrated to the United States. Lipe the Shoykhet took his place.
Of observant religious Jews there were always many and the synagogues were full of praying Jews. There was the "Groyse Shul" (big synagogue), the Chassidic shtibl (small synagogue) - the "Red Minyan," the Groyser Beys-Medresh (the large synagogue), the Chassidic "Green Minyan," the synagogue on the slopes of the hill, called "Toliker" (in the valley); and the Tailors' Synagogue. Naftali Vayts was the recognized "bal-tfile" [prayer leader] of the town.
Before World War I, Novoalexandrovsk had two rabbis: an Chassidic rabbi called "More Tsedek," and Rabbi Burshteyn. After World War I, the rabbi's chair was occupied by Elyohu Reznik. A long time ago the rabbi of the town had been the famous "gaon" (scholar) Rafoel Shapiro, who was the rabbi and the head of Volozhiner Yeshiva.
The congregation ("kehila") looked after the religious requirements of the population, and also the health and welfare of Jews. The congregation had a "bikkur-cholim" (sick society) under the management of Zalman the Paramedic and Leybe Mikhols. There was also a hospital. The chief doctor was Doctor Bukont, a Lithuanian who was a good surgeon. There were also Jewish doctors: Doctor Pik, the dentist, Miss Mistroyb, and there was Doctor Loyne, a German. During the czarist regime there was also "meshtshanske uprave" (administration of the town or local community management), the head of which was Avrom Moyshe Tsimerman. The military rabbi was Ayzik Yafo.
The outbreak of World War I ruined the established Jewish positions and the community organization. Because they feared the approaching front, the Jews abandoned their houses, leaving everything in the care of the Almighty. They went far away, to Russia. The Jews of Novoalexandrovsk left during the war for places such as Penze, Saratov, Nizhni-Novgorod, Kazan, Yelyets, Simperaol, and for the Caucasus region.
In 1919 the Jews of Novoalexandrovsk started to return home. The journey home was very difficult and lasted a long time. The journey from Penze to Dvinsk took three months. When the Jewish refugees returned to Novoalexandrovsk, they found their possessions had been looted and their homes severely damaged. Only the synagogue buildings were not ruined, because the German army had converted them into stables for their horses.
It was only in 1920-22 that larger groups of Jews began to return to Novoalexandrovsk. But a considerable portion of Novoalexandrovsk Jews remained in Russia, and the number of Jews in Novoalexandrovsk was noticeably and considerably diminished.
The decrease of Jews in Ezhereni is referred to in the book Lite that appeared under the editorship of M. Sudarski, Uriah Katsenelbogn and Y. Kisin. Before World War I, the population of Ezhereni was 9,000; after the return of the Jews it was less than half that number, namely 4,200.
According to the statistical table dated 1st January 1927 prepared by Y. Barvein and B. Entelis, inspectors of the central committee of the Yiddish Folk Bank in Kaunas, we see the decrease of the Jewish population in Novoalexandrovsk . At that time there were 1,329 Jews constituting 284 families; members of the Bank numbered 325.
We learn from the above-mentioned table that the People's Bank in Novoalexandrovsk /Ezhereni was founded in 1920. At that time, just after the First World War, the number of Jews was 880 and the number of families 176. The Bank also served the surrounding villages. After the war, the administrative area of Novoalexandrovsk was diminished. A number of villages remained in part of Poland, and Dvinsk (Dinaburg) was cut off. New administrative centres arose in Rakiskis and Utian. The fact that Novoalexandrovsk had no railway station also hindered the development of the economy.
In Novoalexandrovsk trade dropped to a minimum and the poorer peasants around were greatly impoverished, deriving their nourishment mainly from dairy products. In other Lithuanian towns and villages there was a very active reconstruction process, while this was entirely lacking in Novoalexandrovsk.
Nonetheless, after the First World War, a cultural and economic life began in Ezherieni. Because of the impact of the Russian Revolution and the Balfour Declaration, education and social life were modernized.
Under the direction of Ya'akov Mushel, a Hebrew primary school also opened. There being no Hebrew middle-school, many Jewish children attended the local Lithuanian Commerce High School. A Maccabi organization was established. There was also a drama society, of which Leybe and Khaye (Chaya?) Tsimerman, Mulye Tsimerman, Khaye (Chaya?) Shulman and Rivka Berkovitsh were members. There was a library and a Zionist-Socialist party formed. A Linat-Hatsedek, or place for people without shelter, was established. A branch of the Folk Bank was established under the management of Azriel Fitel, Zalman Levit, Rabbi Eliyahu Reznik and Leyb Melnik. Before the war, the director of the Credit Bank was Yudel Shteyn, and the book-keeper Leyb Gilbert. The Joint (American Joint Distribution Committee) also sent subsidies to the Folk Bank to assist people to repair their houses and guest-houses (Hakhnoseth Orkhim).
Towards the end of the 1920s, the emigration of Jews from Ezhereni increased. The main emigrants were the young, and they went to Brazil, South Africa, South America and Palestine.
According to Rabbi Efraim Oshri's book Khurban Lite, Ezhereni- Novoalexandrovsk was among the last places in Lithuania that was occupied by the Germans. The Germans also brought Jews from the surrounding villages; they locked them up in the synagogues, and later took them, together with the local Jews, to the nearest forest where they killed them all.
After the liberation in 1945, a monument for the 8,000 Jews massacred was erected there. Also, after the Holocaust, some letters were received from countrymen who survived the destruction. They wrote to say that they found Novoalexandrovsk totally Juden rein.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund My birthplace is Nova-Alexandrovsk (Ezereni). I studied there in a cheder and at age six, with the help of my father, I made a fiddle out of a small sieve and the strings out of hair from a tail. A few years later, my father took me to Mikhal the klezmer (musician), who taught me to play the fiddle and the clarinet.
I became widely known in Nova-Alexandrovsk as a gifted fiddle player and the rabbi would even invite me to play at the celebration during the intermediate days of Sukkos.
Nova-Alexandrovsk was not a large city. Its population numbered about six thousand souls. The Jews lived in the center of the town and the Lithuanians and Old Believers (Orthodox Russians), whom the Jews called Fonyes (the Yiddish word for Russia or Russians), lived on the edges.
There were orchards, gardens and beautiful lakes. Nova-Alexandrovsk was considered one of the most beautiful spas in Lithuania.
During Czarist times Novo-Alexandrovsk was a district city, with a bailiff [or district police chief Ed.] at the head. The Jews were very poor; only a few Jews had an easy life. The majority of the Jews were without a definite occupation. A poor income was drawn from the Tuesday market days, when Jews would walk among the peasants selling their packs of pig hair, a calf and produce.
Jews traded in fish, along with grains and cows. The butchers did not wait for the customers to come to their butcher shops to buy--they would carry baskets of meat to their customers.
There were craftsmen: tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, tar makers, and so forth.
There was great poverty among the Jews in Novo-Alexandrovsk. My father was poor. He was an enlightened man and was occupied with teaching.
He was a Talmud-Torah teacher and every Friday he simply would have to go to collect kopeks, and he never was able to gather together his salary of three rubles a week. Only for Shabbos, my mother would buy the head of a calf. She would divide the meat among the children and leave the bones for herself and my father to suck on.
I remember how my father Yizrael-Meir, of blessed memory, would send me with a kopek on Shabbos night to buy kvas for havdalah (the ceremony at the close of Shabbos). But he would tell me that I should spend half a kopek and leave the second for another week. The kvas seller would record on the wall that he should give me a portion of kvas without cost on the coming Shabbos night for havdalah. The kvas, alas, was made from the crusts of black bread, and was very sour, like the sourness of the mood of the coming gray week with its worries.
However, great artists came out of Novo-Alexandrovsk such as Yudl Pen a great painter and academician. He died in Russia during the Bolshevik regime which buried him with a great parade at government expense. Great singers, players, conductors and composers also came out of my birthplace. It is most certain that the beautiful landscape affected and influenced their artistic souls.
There was also a small aristocratic class. The so-called aristocrats were advocates who [did not have academic credentials] and wrote petitions for the peasants on market day. They were my wife's father, Zalman the Feldsher, who graduated from a school for feldshers and whom the Jews called Zalman the lucky man; the advocate Gordon (my wife's uncle); advocate Bendet, advocate Fridland; advocate Yerkhmeil Berman, who later became a judge in Utian; Dr. Moishe Berman, who was the head of the Lithuanian Red Cross; and several people from the merchant class.
At age eleven I walked a distance of 50 miles to the Wizer Yeshiva to study. Later I studied in the Dvinsker Yeshiva. Then I left for the wider world where, thanks to my talent, I became the conductor of the orchestra of Nikolai's uncle, Prince Altenburgsky. I came home to visit every few years.
In 1921 I returned to Lithuania. The Lithuanian government was then a young one that expressed liberalism toward the Jews. A short time later, anti-Semitism began to grow which pushed me to emigrate to South Africa.
I have been in South Africa ever since. Now I think back on Novo-Alexandrovsk and her Jews, who although they lived in poverty, were very elevated in their simplicity, in their popularity, and in their honesty and their habits.
Translated by Harry Abramowitz A classic joke is told about my home town, Novoalexandrovsk-Ezhereni-Zarasai. Many years ago my home town was called Ezros because of the majestic lakes (Ozeres) that surrounded the town. But when the grand highway from St. Petersburg to Warsaw was completed, the Czar himself, Alexander III, passed through Ezros to Novoalexandrovsk and was so taken with the natural beauty surrounding the town that he ordered the name to be changed from Ezros to Novoalexandrovsk, after his own name. The citizens, Lithuanian peasants, Jews and Poles, received an additional command that anyone who dared to call the town Ezros would be caned. It happened that a Yishuvnik, an isolated agricultural settler, came to the town to observe the anniversary of a death (of an acquaintance?) . He prayed at the prayer-stand in front of the Ark, and when he came to the part ezras avoyseynu (the help of our fathers), he was too frightened to say the words and instead said Novoalexandrovsk avoyseynu.
When the Lithuanians got their independence they quickly changed the name of the town to Ezhereni, and in the year preceding the Second World War the Lithuanians changed the name of the town to Zarasai. Thus my hometown was blessed with three names. But for the most part the town was called Ezhereni, and the Jews generally called it Ezhereni.
Ezhereni was known as the Switzerland of Lithuania and I maintain that this honourable title is well-deserved. The town was situated on a mountainous peninsula surrounded on all sides with majestic lakes that spread out over a large area.
In the town itself there were two big parks and a beautiful boulevard. In one of the parks there was a monument with a large Russian eagle on top in honour of Alexander III. People used to call this monument the cast-iron post. This park had many trees of all kinds, flowers and glades. On Saturdays and other holidays people would come to the park to get some fresh air and children used to play on the steps of the cast-iron post.
The streets of Ezhzereni were cobbled. Ezhzereni had no muddy streets because the rainwater was drained down to the lake.
A beautiful corner on God's earth, as if painted, was the Ostror (island). People used to come to the island by small boats, and there were picnics and various other entertainments. The young enjoyed themselves and were happy there. Even the cemetery was a peninsula and when there was a burial, those with a sense of humor said, The corpse is being taken to a datcha.
Around the town there were many pine and birch forests. Near every Jewish house there was a garden. Jews had their own orchards and gardens, which made their lives easier economically, and because of that, poverty in our town was not as great as in other smaller towns.
Jews had many brick and stone buildings. The row of shops belonged exclusively to the richer Jewish shopkeepers. There was a big two-floor stone building, where on the ground floor there were big shops and above it, dwellings.
Before the First World War, Novoalexandrovsk, as it was then called, was the administrative center of a very large area, and the following little towns belonged to it: Dusiat, Antalept, Abel, Rakishok, Vidzh, and others. Under the government of Lithuania, Ezhereni lost half of its former towns. A large part fell under the government of Poland. Rakishok then became the administrative center of its surroundings, including other little towns like Abel.
In general, Ezhereni lost a great deal after World War One, being the most remote part of Lithuania, and cut off from Dvinsk. Before World War One, there was considerable commercial activity between Ezhereni and Dvinsk. Finding itself only four versts from Dvinsk, the citizens of Ezhereni were permitted to go to Dvinsk with a permit instead of a proper passport. Even though the connection with Dvinsk was not entirely cut off, normal commercial activity between the two towns could not continue.
The population of the town consisted of Jews, Lithuanians, Poles and Russians. That is why anti-Semitism was not strong in Ezhereni: the Poles hated the Lithuanians, and the Russians hated both groups. Thus they left the Jews alone. As far as I know, there were no fights between Jews and Christians.
Before World War One, the economic position of the Jews was generally satisfactory. There were many rich merchants and some of them were merchants of the first guild who conducted trade all over the world.
There was a richer class and a poorer class. The richer Jews lived on the chaussée [road], on Sodover Street, around the commercial center, where the shops were. The poor Jews lived down the hill, near the lakes. The Poles lived in Saltupe, and the Russians near the factory.
Jews traded with peasants and with neighboring villages. The craftsmen had their own workplaces. The wagon-drivers used to take goods and passengers to Dvinsk and to surrounding villages. The shopkeepers dealt in haberdashery, manufactured articles, hardware and colonial articles. The richest man of the town was Israel Traub. He had a big wool and textile business and was respected by Jews and Christians.
The whole week the shopkeepers stood in their shops, waiting for customers, and having no business they discussed politics and town affairs. But on market-days peasants came from all the surrounding areas, and Jewish shopkeepers and craftsmen would bustle around, engrossed in their business. There were separate sections for timber, hay, cattle and horses. The horse-traders and the butchers were the main bidders at the horse and cattle markets. There were butchers who did a big trade, transporting fish and meat to Dvinsk and other towns.
The annual fair was very noisy. Merchants and peasants came from near and far to this fair.
Novoalexandrovsk had no industry, but there were several lumberjacks who had sawmills behind the town. These Jewish economic enterprises were ruined during World War One.
On the outbreak of World War One, the Novoalexandrovsk Jews were sent far away into Russia. Only from 1918-20 did these refugees return to their homeland and start to rebuild their economic life. Gradually trade with the peasants and with the nearest villages and little towns became normalized. Shopkeepers again opened their shops and craftsmen rebuilt their workshops. Fishermen took leases for fishing on the lakes and occupied themselves with fishing, and with God's help, when there was a good year, profits were very satisfactory.
Nonetheless, the pre-war economic position was very much better. After the war, many families lived only on the support they received from the United States and South Africa.
The religious life of the Jews did not differ from that which existed in other Jewish towns and villages at that time. Before World War One, when the numbers of Jewish inhabitants in Novoalexandrovsk was much greater than after the War, the Jews built six synagogues: the large Beth Midrash, the main synagogue built of brick and stone, which was used only in summer because in wintertime one could not warm up such a big, tall place; the tailors' Beth Midrash; the Beth Midrash down the hill, and the two Chassidic synagogues. These synagogues were always filled with people praying.
In the last years the head of the Jewish community there was Rav Eliyohu Reznik, of blessed memory, and the ritual slaughterers of poultry and livestock were Yosef Litvin and Pinkhos Shteyn. Before World War One, the Chassidim had their own rabbi, whom they called Moyre-Tsedek.
There were cheders and a more enlightened cheder called the Cheder Methukan. This enlightened cheder was managed by Chaim Williamowsky and Shlomo Pelz. After WWI, a school was established and Chaim Williamowsky went over to teach in the school, working together with the other two teachers, Moyshe Mushel and Yasman.
But the cheders continued to exist even after the school was founded. Reb Ben-Zion Lyubatsky, who was both learned in the Torah as well as an enlightened person, had his own cheder. Also well-known was the cheder of Chaim Mordechai Abramowitz, or as they called him, Chaim-Motte the bord, because of his long beard. He was an Chassid and before World War Two he emigrated to Palestine. Mr. Avroham-Yoshe Ichilchick was also well-known as a Hebrew scholar who distinguished himself with his beautiful handwriting. Children of rich parents were his pupils. Many of the pupils of the cheders and schools now live in South Africa.
The pupils of the Hebrew school were, after entrance examinations, enrolled in the Lithuanian gymnasium because there was no Hebrew high school. The more well-to-do parents sent their children to study in Kaunas and in other towns. Many of the children who studied in the cheders afterwards went on to study in the Yeshivoth of Manevezys, Slobodka, etc.
After World War One, various youth movements were started. The Zionist-oriented youth were active in and around the Maccabi organization, and the Jewish youth who were left-inclined belonged to Y.A.K (Jewish Athletic Club). The Maccabi movement had a very good team of football players, and matches were organized with the surrounding little towns. Teams even used to come from Dvinsk, making their way on bicycles to play with the local Maccabis. On such occasions this was quite a holiday in Ezhereni. Shopkeepers closed their shops, hastening to see the match. The Maccabi members used to organize tournaments and beautiful gymnastic exercises. The Y.A.K. also had a good football team and a dramatic circle, which quite often put on Yiddish plays that were much enjoyed by the spectators.
In the 1920s there arose a Chalutz movement, and many young people emigrated to Palestine. The youth saw no future for themselves in their impoverished hometown and took many roads. Some went to Palestine, South Africa, Argentina and other countries.
To finish, I shall mention the local fire brigade which consisted mainly of Jews. The chief of the brigade was Abrasha Rosenberg. All brigade members wore uniforms with shining brass helmets. The fire-brigade had their own musical band. On the occasion of official parades, like Lithuanian Independence Day, the fire brigade used to march with the military units led by Abrasha Rosenberg. (Later he emigrated to South Africa and died a short time ago in Cape Town.)
This was my little hometown. A community of Jews lived there, more or less satisfied with its fate, trusting in God. They married off their children and built homes--some better ones, some worse. All enjoyed the surrounding lakes and forests, until the savage Nazi plague arrived and killed all the Jews.
Ezhereni did not produce any great men. As far as I know, only eight persons were known throughout Lithuania. These included the sole Jewish judge, Yerachmiel Berman, who was a judge in Utian, and his brother, Dr. Moshe Berman, who was the head of the Jewish Hospital in Kaunas in the last few years before World War Two. He, together with other doctors, Benjamin Zacharin, Zvi Elkem, Rosa Golach and Leyb Feldshteyn, organized courses in Kaunas for Jewish partisans and ghetto fighters to enable them to give first aid.
All the Jews of Ezhereni were dear, hearty, plain Jews with crystal-clear souls.
Only a few Ezhereni Jews managed to save their lives. According to the latest information only seven or eight Jewish families live there now, Joseph Grinman amongst them.
This is the terrible tragic history of my hometown Ezhereni.
Translated by Helen Mitnick My shtetl Boguslavishok was small, and it was far from a train station, it was between Vilna and Kovno.
Around my shtetl were many farms and valleys, in the spring and summer everything was fresh and green, until today these things are still fresh in my memory about the vast expanse around my shtetl.
The adjoining small shtetlekh were called Shirvint, Musnik and Gelvan. My shtetl was close to Gelvan by about 5 miles. There they had a library with a good assortment of books, also a section of dramas. Boguslavishok was far from the cultural area, so our young people stayed close to Gelvan.
At our shtetl we didn't even have a house of prayer, only an old classroom. The slaughterer was also the Hebrew teacher, who taught the children the alphabet, and then how to pray.
Wealthy parents sent their children to Vilkomir High School. The students would come home on holidays. They also held meetings on Zionism, Socialism, and other literary topics. From time to time they would have lectures.
About sixty families lived in Boguslavishok. We didn't have a regular Rabbi because our shtetl had no means of supporting him and his family. There was a Kazianer rabbi by the name of Avraham Pik. He was a great scholar. Our shtetl did not have a doctor, so they called the local priest who helped with the physicals and put up cups and also leeches, or applied hot bricks for stomach pains and lung disease.
Our shtetl was the same as all the shtetlekh around us; it was hard for Jewish people to make a living. Also during the Lithuanian leadership the situation didn't improve, and when the cooperatives opened, the situation of the Jewish people got worse. We also had small merchants, hard working laborers, one tailor and several shoe repairers.
All our people were honest, hard working, simple, but the hard work did not alter their goodness for each other. Till this day I remember the good deeds of our people. Moishe Yosel, Avrum Shimsons, and Hirshke Burshtyn were the drivers of the horses and wagons in Boguslavishok.
The bad economic situation and poverty got worse, so that it created an emigration from our shtetl, especially for the young. The elderly remained in place, dependent on God and the generosity of their children who had left to improve their life. Waiting for their help, the Jewish population got smaller in Boguslavishok. The Jews in town lived so very poor, waiting for better times, and also the hour when they could leave to join their children in their new homes. But the Nazis stopped all hope and all dreams of a better day. They all perished from the German enemy.
Many years have passed since I left my shtetl, but I still have many memories, pictures of my shtetl and my beloved sweet home. I remember my mother being very busy on Friday, and her mild face lit up always when she had the greatest joy over lighting the Sabbath candles, and from the shining brass candlesticks that would light up her face, and were spread over the white Sabbath tablecloth, the floor with sand shining as a sign that Sabbath has arrived and the weekly worries have vanished.
From the small window that overlooked the holy Temple, we could see the gray-haired shammash, Yahuda, who was waiting for the congregants to come and honor the Sabbath. The sun is setting and the congregation is already there in shul, at the pulpit was my father in his Sabbath robe, deep in prayer. On the faces glimmers the soul of Sabbath. When the shoemaker, Shimin Yosel, stands at the pulpit to honor the Sabbath with his glorious tone, all the Jews join in with great joy and delight.
Boguslavishok had dear Sabbaths and good-hearted people.
Translated by Yona Fisher Subate was divided by a lake (ozere) as though there were two towns. There were two different rabbis, different shochtim, teachers, and Beit Midrashim. The eastern part of the town was the more significant in respect of the commercial center. The rich (gevrim) also resided in the eastern part close to the Market Square. The well-known wealthy of the town were the Factors, Abrahamson, Mariengeburg, Rubanenko, and others. It was a quiet Jewish town. With the exception of Monday, the market day, one rarely saw a strange person. The majority of the town was occupied with labor and transport. There were also "Luftmenschen" and retailers. There was no shortage of "Karabelnickers" who used to leave with a heavy pack on their shoulders from early Monday till Friday and traverse through the villages and farms.
The surroundings of Subate were extraordinarily beautiful and healthy. The lake, which was to be found in the middle of the town, added much to the beauty of the town. It used to attract many visitors who enjoyed the summer months.
From the year 1915, when Subate was occupied by the Germans, we were totally cut off from Courland. At that stage Rakishok was the nearest center with which we were connected commercially and which influenced us spiritually. Teachers, cantors, and orators were brought from there. Generally we were influenced by the Lithuanian Jewish Renaissance. We also made adjustments to the modernization of our education and established national culture organizations according to the Lithuanian style.
Our old rabbi, Hagaon Rabbi Moshe Zacher, was known as "Gadol Batorah." I once heard from the Rogevitscher Gaon, Joseph Rogen, that Moshe could "lernen." Our well-known Chazan was Avraham Yitzchak Katzevitz (the shochet from Abel in Lithuania), a type of "Berele Chagi." He also served Rakishok with his beautiful davening.
After the First World War a modern Hebrew School was organized via the brothers Cohen (currently residing in Johannesburg) and the son of the shochet, Israel, was the principal. Our school produced a large number of Hebrew speaking pupils. Israel (Katzevitz) was a fine "Maskil" with unique pedagogic abilities and was caught up somewhat excessively in the Haskalah movement. His initiative led to a well-organized Zionist organization and also a theatrical group.
In this theatrical group, Pearl the "rebbes" wife with her natural talent, proved to be outstanding. She was also the first female member of our democratic community. The chairman was our last Rabbi, Hagaon Yaacov Epstein (nephew of Gaon Rabbi Moshe Epstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Hebron).
As far as the existence of genuine Judaism in the Jewish street was concerned, it is worth remembering a certain incident. A well-known shopkeeper who conducted classes in Meshniot on Saturday and Sunday had a liking for the Omed (bimah) and was a very pleasant davener without payment. When it became known that his two sons, students at the Lithuanian Gymnasium, were writing on Shabbat, he was no longer permitted to approach the Omed.
May the above sentences remain as a memorial to our most beloved and dear holy ones (Kedoshim) who lived a true Jewish life and raised their holy souls (Al Kiddush Hashem). May their blood be avenged.
Donated by Lois Feldman Clausen
Translated from the Yiddish by Paul Silbert Ponedel lies on the road from Rakishok to Birz. Before the First World War it was a muddy and neglected little town.
Ponedel is surrounded by the little towns of Suavenshki, Anushishok, Ponimunok, Skupishok and Papel. It is 28 kilometres from Rakishok.
Around Ponedel there is a chain of villages.
The centre was the market square. From Rakishok you used to come in through Main Street, which stretched as far as the market. A large and beautiful House of Prayer stood on the market square, as well as the shops and the shopkeepers' residences.
To the right from the market square stretched Railway Street. Ponedel had only a narrow-gauge railway which the Germans constructed at the time of the First World War. The narrow-gauge railway linked Ponedel with Skopishok and Suavenishok.
To the left from the market square--the vital nerve-centre of the little town--was Pazelayker Street, which led to Suavenishok. From there stretched the Birz road, which led to Kvetki and Papel [and] as far as Birz.
On Synagogue Street was found the synagogue courtyard, where were located the house of study, the synagogue, the prayer room and the deacons' synagogue, and the poorhouse, into which poor people used to be admitted. On Bath Street there was the ritual bath.
Ponedel had no river [it was located on a hill overlooking the river Oposhta] or lake: there was only a muddy tank for rainwater in the market square.
The landscape around Ponedel was very beautiful in appearance. It had many orchards and gardens and the houses stood in the midst of greenery.
Before the First World War Ponedel belonged to the Novo-Alexandrovsk District. After the war Ponedel was attached to the Rakishok District.
The population numbered approximately 150 Jewish families and 50-60 Christian families. The total number was estimated at approximately 2500 souls. The Christians of the little town were all Lithuanian peasants who supported themselves by agricultural labour, having their own fields and pastures.
The Jews gained their livelihood from the market. There used to be two annual fairs. Jews were shopkeepers, traders and artisans, the latter following such trades as cobbler, tailor, shinglemaker, tinsmith, hatmaker, butcher and wigmaker. There was also a pair of Jewish herdsmen. One of the herdsmen was called Leybke Yudels.
The largest businesses were: the draper's shop of Shimon Zuse, who had three educated daughters; Itzik Pinkushevitz's draper's shop; Khaim Flax's drapery business; Khaim-Leyb's drapery shop; Yisrael Zalevetzki's shoe store and Zalman Pinkushevitz's hardware store.
The following had food or grocery stores: Mendel Zak; Bebe Yoses; Rokhl-Leya, Khaim-Ber's daughter; [and] Getzl Mizrach. Fayve-Yose-Itze Ekdes had a restaurant. Shneur Flax was a flax dealer. Sara-Breyne was a baker. There were peddlers and several teamsters.
Ponedel Jews were all Chassidim. The rabbi, before the First World War, was Rabbi Moyshe Ogins, a very learned man and a fine human being, who was greatly beloved in the little town and the surrounding area. Two of his daughters are now in Israel and one in Johannesburg. His son, at the time when the Germans entered the town, hid at the [parish] priest's. The priest turned to the Christian Dr. Straus to assist him in saving the rabbi's son, but Dr. Straus betrayed the rabbi's son to the Germans, who killed him and the priest.
After Rabbi Moyshe Ogins died, the rabbinical chair was taken by Rabbi Itzik Dubov, who is now in America. Afterwards the rabbi was Rabbi Yitzhak of Riga.
A very fine personality was the ritual slaughterer Zalman Rabinovitz. He was a good Jew and a very learned man. The entire town respected him. After his death he was succeeded by his son, Artshik Rabinovitz, who was a modern Jew and for that reason had many opponents. The son was rescued [presumably by friendly Lithuanians] and is now living in Vilna.
Ponedel had many teachers. The best-known were: Zalman Skeyster--a teacher of Gemara; Avraham-Leyb; Yishaya-Bere; Yisroel; Mayer-Tuvya; Moyshele and Khaim Tepper, now in Cape Town.
The prayer leaders were: Leybe-Bere the Bookseller, Moyshe Gershons, and Shmuel-Rafoel.
Among the important householders in Ponedel were reckoned: Moyshe Yisroels; Hirshe-Mote; Yose-Itze Ekdes; Shimon Grimbla; Yitkhak Pinkushevitz.
In 1915, when the Russian Army retreated, Cossacks rode into Ponedel. They called on the old rabbi and gave him the order that the town [ie. the Jewish population] had to be evacuated within 24 hours. Seized by a great panic, everyone fled from Ponedel, but the Germans captured Ponedel and the immediate area so quickly that many returned. A great number of Ponedel Jews were evacuated deep into Russia and came back in 1920-1922.
The town, during the course of the war, was reduced to ruins. The returning Jews lay about in the synagogue and poorhouse and wherever they were able to find shelter.
Thanks to assistance from the Joint [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] and from relatives overseas, Ponedel quickly rebuilt itself and acquired a modern appearance. The Lithuanian authorities had the streets paved. Trade ties were revived, mainly with Rakishok. The tax on artisans was increased [by the Lithuanian government]. This was a high tax for the little tailors, who now had to face competition from their Christian colleagues.
A People's Bank [cooperative bank] was founded. The president was Shmuel Pinkushevitz; Henekh Kark was secretary.
The economic life of Ponedel greatly improved with more secure times, but the heavy tax burden on the Jewish population impoverished the Jewish shopkeepers and artisans.
The town received a final blow with the removal of the shops from the market square--the most important source of livelihood for many Jews. The order to clear the market square of shops was supposedly for purely aesthetic reasons--to beautify the town--but it was in harmony with the "patriotic" struggle of the Lithuanian cooperatives to drive Jewish shopkeepers out of their positions.
Regardless of the various political-economic phases in Jewish Lithuania, Jewish organisations revived in our home town. Various factions of the Zionist Movement distinguished themselves as did the "Aguda" [ancestor of the ultra-Orthodox Israeli religious party of that name], the "Tiferet Bachurim" [evidently an Orthodox youth movement], and there was also a left-wing movement.
Branches of "Maccabi" [the Jewish sports association] and "HaShomer HaTzair" [a left-wing Zionist youth movement] and a "Khalutz" [Pioneer] group were created.
The Ponedel "Maccabi" numbered over 100 members, and had a soccer section [the Yiddish text includes a team photo], a dramatic circle, and a library. There were shows, lectures and other cultural activities. The leaders of Maccabi were Velve Herring and Henekh Kark.
The "HaShomer HaTzair" was a good scouting organization which occupied itself in preparing pioneers for emigration to the Land of Israel.
The left-wing movement was very active. The "Culture League" was founded in 1922. The founders and leaders of the "Culture League" were Yose Hak, Ratner the teacher, the teacher Libe Yikir, and Yankl Fabrikovitz. The "Culture League" in Ponedel set up a Jewish People's School where the language of instruction was Yiddish. The school was recognized by the government, which used to pay the teachers and also provided a Lithuanian [language] teacher. The Jewish People's School was on a very high [academic] level, and even when the "Culture League" was closed down, the Jewish People's School continued to exist.
In the "Culture League" there was an active dramatic section. The actors were Itzke Katz, Yose Hak, Khilke Hak, Sarke Hak, Khaim Hak and the teacher Ratner. The dramatic section used to bring in outside acting troupes. The income went for the library, which numbered 1000 books.
At the time that Smetona became president [after the right-wing military coup of December 1926] and the Reaction grew strong, the "Culture League" was closed. The members, out of fear of the authorities, burned the library.
But this did not halt the political activity of the "Culture League". After the closing of the "Culture League" an association was created called "Sport" under which [political] work was resumed although it met with persecution on the part of the authorities. Once Khanke and Yokhanon were arrested--a brother and sister. They were taken away to Ponemune [Ponemunilis] and the members of Ponedel "Sport", with Toybe Evens at their head, maintained contact with the arrested comrades and sent them parcels with food and necessary items.
Due to the fanaticism of the Aguda people [ultra-Orthodox], Ponedel did not have a Hebrew People's School. The parents who wanted to give their children a [secular] Hebrew education, sent their children to Rakishok, where there was a large Hebrew school. Ponedel did not even have a "Yavneh" [Religious Zionist] School.
In general, Ponedel had a fine and active youth. Many young people from Ponedel are today found in Africa, Argentina, Brazil and in Israel. They emigrated because their own little town had become narrow for them and hard to survive in both economically and spiritually.
There are no details [known] about the death of Ponedel at the hands of the German terrorists [on August 25, 1941]. But it is said that the Germans, together with the Lithuanian peasants, drove all the Jews together into the market square and BURNED THEM ALIVE to the musical accompaniment of a German [military] band.
Translated by Hedva Scop, Henia Sneh and Haim Katz
Edited by Sara Weiss-Slep The shtetl goes by various names: Dusiat - in Russian, Dusetos in Lithuanian, and the Jews called the shtetl Dusat-Dushat. The shtetl itself is situated between Rokiskis (Rokishok), Utena (Utian) and Novo-Alexandrovsk (Ezerenai/Zarasai). The natural surroundings were quite beautiful. Pine forests, a lake and a river surrounded the village. Green fields and gardens bloomed extensively during the spring and summer. The suburb Padustelis (Podusiat) served as a summer holiday resort (dacha) for the people from the neighboring townlets.
A lake separated Dusetos from a courtyard (heyf) belonging to a Polish landowner (poritz). The lake was called the Courtyard Lake, and could be crossed by means of a wooden boat, run by Yosse Gafanovitch.
In the winter, the lake would freeze over totally, and one could travel across the ice. There was a local saying that the lake had to claim a victim each year. In the early spring and in the autumn everything was covered in thick black mud. Anyone walking in galoshes or travelling by wagon would sink deeply into it.
The three main streets converged on the market place. There were only a few houses between the square and the lake, as well as the Chassidic synagogue. The market place spanned an area of four acres and there were a few shops on all sides of the square. Almost all the shops had dwelling places above, accessed by an outside staircase.
The street facing the lake was called Maskevitcher-Gasse and ran in the direction of the Christian townlet Padustelis. Off to the right was the Skinaiker forest. Past the forest was a road that led to Antaliepte (Antalept) and Utena. On the left via Deguciai one could access the road running to Novo-Alexandrovsk.
From the market place, on the left side of the lake was Unter-Brik-Gasse (Under-the-Bridge Road) leading to Uzpaliai (Ushpol) and Rokiskis. The road followed the course of the Perkailus river, and hence the name, Unter-Brik-Gasse. The church and residence of the local priest were situated at the end of this road.
To the left of the square was Milner-Gasse, and at the end on a hillock was a windmill. The sails of the mill were visible from our window. From the direction in which the sails rotated, we could tell which way the wind was blowing. The miller was Elya Yoffe, a tall, handsome and scholarly Jew. Everyone in the shtetl was very fond of him.
The public bathhouse was at the end of Milner-Gasse. For many years Leib-Itze Scop maintained it. In his later years he immigrated to South Africa where he lived out the rest of his life in a quieter fashion.
Between Milner-Gasse and Maskevitcher-Gasse stood both the large synagogue (Beth Hamidrash - shul) and the smaller prayer house. Behind the large synagogue was the well where all the inhabitants would draw their water. Over and above the well, Dusetos had two springs, which served to quench one's thirst during the hot summer days. On Shabbos eves, the Jews would draw water to prepare tea for the Shabbos. The Shabbos goy Mazeleniche would take the clay vessels from those waiting on line and fill them up with the sparkling water.
The only streets in the shtetl were those mentioned above. Between the wooden houses, one could see a couple of red brick houses owned by the Jews who were more comfortably off. There was no electricity, but because of the straw roofs of the Christian houses, Dusetos was illuminated more than once.
A large fire broke out in 1905. A couple of horse thieves set alight a building in the vicinity of the bath-house, and the fire spread to Milner-Gasse. Many of the homes of the non-Jews were burnt and the poyerim (peasants) waited for an opportunity to settle the score with the Jews. An air of unrest filled the shtetl and the Jews feared that this would lead to a pogrom. The youth formed themselves into self-defense league, and were joined by those from Salakas (Salok) and Novo-Alexandrovsk.
The danger of the outbreak of a pogrom was greatest on Sundays and Wednesdays, the latter being market day. Many peasants would come to the market from the surrounding area.
One Sunday, a pogrom did indeed erupt. The Christians, on their way out of church, started attacking the Jews. Members of the self-defense league held out bravely against the rioting, but the counter-attack was tough. The pogromists broke into Jewish houses and stores, smashed the windowpanes and stole what they could. The Jews barricaded themselves in the cellars and in the women's section of the synagogue. The league managed to fire a few shots before retreating. Itze Barron, who had a shop in the market place, crouched on the stairs with a handgun and fired at the angry poyerim. After he ran out of bullets, the rioters pulled him down the stairs and beat him over the head.
Rochel-Leah Poritz lived nearby Itze Barron. Rochel-Leah was blonde and looked like a Christian. She donned the local apparel and ran over to the priest's house. She found him inside the church and cried out to him: Just know that you are responsible for today's events in the shtetl, whether it be in the name of G-d or in the name of the authorities. One man has already died, and who knows how many more will fall! The priest heeded her words and ordered the bell-ringer to sound the bells. When the rioters heard the ringing, they took it as a call to come to church. The priest implored them to stop the pogrom.
The authorities in Novo-Alexandrovsk were informed, and they sent a Cossack company who managed to drive the rioters away and restrained the leaders in chains.
Among the peasant leaders were: Venezindes, Barzdes, Kaitkes, Pakalnes and others. They were indicted, convicted and sent to prison. The Cossacks remained in Dusetos for an extended duration. They set up quarters at Maishe-Leib's house. When things calmed down, they were called up, and off they went. Thanks to the very brave Jewish woman, Rochel-Leah, the shtetl and its inhabitants were saved.
In 1908, a further pogrom almost erupted. The Dusetos resident Yoel, bought a cow in Kriaunos, about 6 miles from Dusetos. Apparently he managed to convince the owner that the cow was barren. But the owner soon found out that the cow was with calf. He sought Yoel out at home and threatened to kill him. The news of the incident spread like wildfire. The self-defense league intervened and persuaded Yoel to back down from his previous claim. For a long time people in the shtetl continued to live in fear of the outbreak of a pogrom.
In 1910 another large fire raged. Almost all of Dusetos was burnt down. Of the few surviving buildings were the Hassidic synagogue, and the homes of Itze Mashiah and Henech Kahath. It is hard to describe the tragedy. Men, women and children, including the elderly, were gathered on the muddy banks of the river. Everyone had lost their homes and all their possessions. Children wept heart-breaking tears, but no one paid any attention to them. Everyone's spirit was broken. News reached the surroundings towns and villages and soon people started arriving, bringing with them food and clothing. They also managed to gather a large sum of money in donations. With aid coming in from America and Africa, work on rebuilding the shtetl commenced. The large synagogue was reconstructed. By 1912, the building was completed.
There were some 200 Jewish families in Dusetos. According to the supervisor book (Ispektzia Buch) of the Folks Bank of January 16th, 1927, 704 souls were accounted for. Side by side the Jews lived about 100 Gentiles, who were Christians and of Lithuanian origin. Many Jews became retailers and artisans. Some earned their living by working the land on plots they leased. There were thirty Jewish-owned stores, the largest being that of Rochel-Leah Poritz, Bertchik Levit and Chaim-Leib Adelman, Henech Kahath and the wife of Eber. Eber was an advocate, a wise man who was also well versed in the Torah and an exemplary scholar.
The longest row of stores was opposite the lake and belonged to the Levit clan who were known as the Yuzinter (those who hailed from Yuzint - Juzintai). They were very learned and somewhat proud folk.
Wednesdays were market days. This was the only day of the week that the Jews could make a living. Fairs were held twice a year and they were quite a spectacle.
During the WWI, Dusetos traded with Daugavpils (Dvinsk) by means of oxcart. There was no railway station in Dusetos. The closest railway station was Obeliai (Abel). During the war, a few traveled by rail, but most people traveled by horse.
In Dusetos, like in the other prevalently Jewish townlets, there were peddlers, shoemakers, tailors, smiths and other tradesmen, and also butchers. There was only one furrier and one wood joiner (carpenter). Abba Der Ilgishiler was the only carpenter in the shtetl. In later years he went blind, however he continued to work at his trade. Lozer was the local potter. His wares were sold both at the local market and at those of towns and shtetlach in the area. Another admirable person was Dr. Druyan who went to Israel. Meir Tzirlin was a learned man who traded in tailoring cloth, and then parted for America. Abba Shlomovitz, the son of the late Reverend Shlomovitz, went off to Johannesburg where he wrote several books.
The richest and most well to do families other than the Levits, were Moshe-Leib Ziev who ran a tavern where both guests and government officials would stay, Chaim-Leib Adelman and Emmanuel Slep.
The shtetl was proud to have Torah scholars who would serve as readers in the synagogue services. Rabbi Noteleh Zilber officiated until his passing before WWI. His son (Rabbi Eliezer Silver) is a well-known rabbi in the States. Dusetos had 5-6 cheders, one at a high level. The teachers were learned men: Alter Shein; Moshe Paseler who was also a writer; Moshe Karpelas; Moshe-Elya; Leib-Itze; the Gemora teacher Avram-Moshe; another Gemora teacher Shaul; and Chaim-Leib. The rebbe of the higher cheder was Yechiel Garber and was renowned for his Hebrew teachings.
Before WWI, besides studying in cheder, Jewish children attended the Russian folkschool. From Dusetos, emerged honorable Jews and outstanding personalities. Among them was Soreh-Leah Shein who lived to the ripe old age of 99. She made a living by practicing cupping and leeching. She served both as nurse and midwife. She had a cure for every illness. Other interesting personalities were: Chaim-Aharon Shein the pharmacist and son-in-law to the rabbi; Zovl was the male nurse. A fine human being was Shaul-Dovid Shubb, the slaughterer. He was a serious scholar.
Mordechai Yoffe in the book Lithuania, edited by Dr. Mendel Sudarsky, Oriah Katzenellenbogen and Y. Kissin, wrote in length about Reb. Shaul-Dovid:
He was handsome, erudite and bright, and modern. One does not have enough fingers on one's hand to count all his good qualities. People could trust him and had respect for him. If asked a question, he would give an answer; if asked for advice he would give it. He was always willing to add a few good words. If there was a dispute, he would mediate. If there was a simcha, he would participate. If someone was in trouble, he would help. How could it be otherwise?
While mediating, he would lean back in his armchair as if at the Pesach Seder, listening calmly to each of the sides, and looking for the best way of reaching an agreement.
Characters worth mentioning are: Reb Eliyahu Aharon the Torah reader on Shabbos; Henech Kahath and the rebel Hirsche Rubin's. He was always in dire straits, living in poverty and hunger. He always had a grudge against everybody.
Others deserving of mention are: Elya, the son of Soreh-Mira, with his kindness and compassion for others; Pinyah the painter with his respect for learning, even though he himself could not read enough to daven; Itzikel Esak, otherwise known as Itzikel the Bricklayer, who was a pauper; Leibele Nye Rosh (Hands Off in Russian) whose nickname was inspired by an incident where he had tried to take a pumpkin from a peasant's wagon, and the peasant had warned him fiercely not to touch the wares.
WWI changed Dusetos. There was not one military force that did not pass through. From the cannon fire in the distance, they thought the Russians were preparing to march on the town. Just as they started packing their belongings, the Germans arrived and all the inhabitants remained at home. Even before the appearance of the Germans, a group of refugees had come from Vilnius (Vilna). The Dusetos Jews received the Vilnius Jews warmly and openly.
In the period after the war, the Jews of Dusetos had managed to make ends meet. The stores were open and the merchants would travel to Panavezys (Ponevez) to order to purchase merchandise. Most of the trade took place amongst the closest villages, both in buying and selling.
The economic situation in Dusetos had not changed much since the war.
After Daugavpils was incorporated into Latvia and trade increased with Rokiskis (since Panevezys was too far away), the shtetl became unrecognizable both culturally and spiritually.
The Balfour Declaration brought with it a new national spirit. The old cheder went out of fashion. Instead it became a culture school. The headmaster was Hillel Schwartz, and the teachers were Yudel Slep and Leibtzik Gordon. Berl Levit taught night classes for the adults and was in charge of the teaching staff. He went to Johannesburg afterwards. A Maccabi organization was established numbering 50 members. A library was opened and the newlyformed dramatic circle put on some shows. There was also an active Zionist group.
In 1924, a Jewish national bank was opened. The managers were David Schwartz and Yossel Poritz. There were 152 clients, drawing from various skills and professions: 53 tradesmen; 78 storekeepers and merchants; 4 gardeners; 8 builders and foremen; 2 clerks; 7 free and other professions. The bank also included the neighboring Antaliepte in its activities.
Dusetos followed the Mitnaggedim stream.
During this period, there was a minister who was responsible for Jewish affairs in Lithuania, and an elected committee ran the affairs in the shtetl.
There was also a left-wing movement in Dusetos. Amidst the shtetl-dwellers were some prominent figures. One of the Levit family (Dr. Yeshayahu Levit) went to study in Germany, where he read for a doctorate in Philosophy, and when he came for a visit, a banquet was given in his honor.(He died suddenly in Vilnius 1940).
Yisrael Joffer (Yoffe) who wrote for the Kaunas (Kovno) publication De Yiddishe Shtieme (The Yiddish Voice) and Mordechai Yoffe the poet and writer who went on to Canada, both hailed from Dusetos.
The inhabitants of Dusetos were in touch with the Jews of Salakas and Antaliepte, as well as Deguciai some 17 miles away.
May their memory be blessed!
1According to my research, before the town was named after Alexander III, it was known by several names, "Oziera", "Ozera", "Ezherena" and even in plain Yiddish "Ozeres." This new name of Novoalexandrovsk was proposed to Alexander III to honour his visit on his way to Kovna, because various kings had given similar names to various towns. "Novoalexandrovsk" was a somewhat pretentious name for a very little town with no railway to the outside world, because the Slav ending "-ovsk" usually signified a town of some importance, either as a communication center or because of its large population or industry. None of these could be attributed to Novoalexandrovsk. Return
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